Bassem Giacaman, like Jesus, was born in Bethlehem, although he moved to New Zealand with his family when he was very young. They left due to the difficult situation many people faced in the Holy Land. They went looking for a better life abroad. One day, Bassem’s father asked him if he could go back to Bethlehem and sell the olive wood factory and the gift shop the family still owned there. Those were Bassem’s intentions when he travelled from New Zealand to his hometown, but everything changed when he was back there.
Although in the Gospels we get the impression of a small town, Bethlehem is now a city with a population of 30,000 that depends mainly on the tourist industry. Hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops are usually family-run businesses. Bassem’s grandfather started the business in 1925, opening the Blessings Gift Shop and the Olive Wood Factory. It is a workshop where they craft all kinds of wooden figurines, Christmas decorations, crosses, rosaries, and other souvenirs.
“When I came back here,” remembers Bassem, “there is too much history…” Something touched him deeply after all those years living abroad and he could not carry out his father’s wishes. “I just didn’t feel that was the right thing to do. Then, I stayed.” He is proud to be the third generation in the family business and he has pictures of his grandfather and father hanging on one of the shop walls.
The gift shop has now been closed for nine months, as are most of the stores in Bethlehem, as well as shops in other tourist sites around the Holy Land. Two minutes away from the Basilica of the Nativity and next door to the Milk Grotto Church, the Blessings Gift Shop was usually packed with tourists, pilgrims, and visitors before Corona. “It is a really big problem because there are no tourists at all,” says Bassem, “and the only means of income are from tourists. So we just pray that things do change very soon.”
Like many other craftsmen in the Holy Land, Bassem misses his job and the flow of international visitors that crowded the streets everyday of the year. On a regular day, he would have been working the wood with his hands, as Jesus and Joseph centuries ago in the northern town of Nazareth. “We feel proud as Christians to also be doing carpentry work,” admits Bassem. During this holy season, their nativity sets and Christmas decorations can be found in many homes all around the world.
Not surprisingly, the peak season in Bethlehem is Christmas. “We see different Christians coming from many countries,” says Bassem. “It’s a great feeling. We have the Christmas tree, Christmas spirit, fireworks…” However, this year everything will be different due to the restrictions. The traditional lighting of the Christmas tree in the Manger Square usually gathers thousands of people including locals, pilgrims and tourists. This year it took place on the night of December 6 and was only attended by some local authorities while people could follow it online.
Although the situation is not easy and many families all around the world won’t be able to celebrate Christmas as they used to, it is still the season of hope. Bassem is aware of that: “We pray everyday and we believe that everything is going to be fine. God is with us. We will never give up on our faith and it’s just another challenge that will make us stronger.”